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New notational signs II

In addition to the introduction of a smaller note value, the minima, about which we learned in Step 5.2, Ars Nova notation also made use of other new signs which are the subject of this brief account.

Coloration (ie coloured notes) appears in many manuscripts of the 14th and 15th centuries. When black mensural notation is used, coloured notes mostly appear as red notes while ‘white’ or void notes are also sometimes used. The result of coloration is simply that the measure of the coloured notes is reversed in respect to the main measure of the piece. In practice, most of the time coloration indicates imperfection of note values that would otherwise be perfect. However, the opposite case also occurs when coloured note values indicate perfection in an otherwise imperfect measure.

Coloration groups as indication of imperfection© Madrid, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, V.III.24, [Escorial A], fol. 40r

This example is in tempus imperfectum with prolatio maior which means that each semibreve is worth three minimae. The first two ligatures are cum opposita proprietate and therefore consist of two semibreves each. If we transcribe them in six-eight time, they will make two dotted crotchets per ligature. The next ligature also consists of two semibreves but it is coloured which means that they are imperfect. Together with the single red semibreve that follows the ligature, they can be transcribed as three crotchets. The same applies to the second group of coloured notes after the brevis-brevis ligature.

Mostly, coloration occurs in groups of notes. The note values of the coloration groups often serve as good indicators of the measure of the piece. If groups of three breves are coloured, it is very likely that the tempus is perfect. If three semibreves are coloured, the prolatio is perfect.

Coloration in black mensural notation is sometimes also used to indicate note values smaller than the minima. In connection with the punctum additionis, which we will discuss below, it can be understood as a semiminima which may be transcribed as a semiquaver or a triplet quaver.

Coloration as indication of small note values© Madrid, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, V.III.24, [Escorial A], fol. 38r

Another new sign that became established in Ars Nova notation is the punctum. Today we know this sign well as we use it for dotted notes in modern notation. However, this is only one of the meanings it had in Ars Nova notation. The punctum additionis adds half the value to a note as we have seen in the above example in which a coloured minima followed a regular minima. It can also occur after all other note values. In the following example, it is used twice after a semibrevis.

Punctum additionis used for adding half of the note value© Madrid, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, V.III.24, [Escorial A], fol. 37r

The punctum additionis can usually be identified by the fact that the dotted value is followed by a smaller note value, in our case two semibreves followed by a minima. As you can see, ligatures can also be dotted.

The other application of the punctum is to indicate perfection. It is therefore either called punctum perfectionis or punctum divisionis. The latter name occurs more frequently as it often divides perfection groups and thereby makes them visible. Very often, it is used to prevent alteration in the sequence B SB SB B.

Punctum divisionis used to mark perfection groups© Madrid, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, V.III.24, [Escorial A], fol. 38r

With the punctum divisionis, it becomes clear that the first semibrevis imperfects the first brevis and thus forms a perfection group. The second brevis is imperfected by the semibrevis a parte ante. It can also be used to indicate the imperfection of a part of a note as in the following example where a semibreve imperfects a maxima.

Punctum divisionis used to mark imperfection of a part of the note value© Madrid, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, V.III.24, [Escorial A], fol. 36v

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This article is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel

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